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The Strange Case of Paul de Man

Bard College Library Archives/Hamilton Winslow
Paul de Man with Renée and Theodore Weiss, Bard College, circa December 1949

In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith created high drama from imposture: the almost unbearable tension of suspense that comes with living a double life. That novel seems to have inspired Evelyn Barish’s notion of how to write the biography of Paul de Man. “With every passing year,” she tells us of de Man in the 1950s, “he felt a little more safe, but the stakes were high and the anxiety never left him.” That’s a good novelistic premise. A biographer has to earn it.

What sets Barish in pursuit of the “double life” of the impostor is of course the revelation that came four years after de Man’s death in 1983—he was then Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale—that he had as a young man in occupied Belgium written for periodicals under the control of collaborators with the Nazis: journalistic pieces that seemed to reflect a favorable view of the “New Order” brought by Hitlerite Germany, and in one instance expressed explicitly anti-Semitic views. These pieces, essentially book and cultural reviews, were published in Le Soir (known to Belgians as Le Soir volé, the Stolen Evening, when it fell into collaborationism) and a Flemish periodical, Het Vlaamsche Land, between 1940 and 1942, when the editors with whom he worked were dismissed from Le Soir, which lost even the simulacrum of independence. There were other brief notices in the Bibliographie Dechenne. De Man after that seems to have withdrawn to his family’s country home and ceased writing for publication (except to translate Moby-Dick into Dutch).

The young de Man (he was born in 1919) presumably gained access to Le Soir, the most prominent Belgian daily, because his uncle, Hendrik or Henri de Man, was the most important political figure at the time the Nazis, ignoring Belgium’s declared neutrality, overran the country. Hendrik was the leader of the Belgian Labour Party, a socialist who believed that European parliamentary democracies had become corrupt and irresponsible, and he made the grave mistake of looking to the German occupier as a force to revive the national spirit. With the official government gone into exile, he became a close adviser to King Leopold III. Originally “Belgicist” in policy, and convinced of the “duty not to abstain” from public life under occupation, he fell from favor, fled the country in 1941, and following the war was found guilty in absentia of treason.

As for his nephew Paul de Man, one has to conclude that he did collaborate, no doubt from opportunism, as a young man seeking to make his way as a cultural journalist, and from conviction as a Fleming that German culture offered “moral regeneration” in contrast to French decadence. I think one must also recognize that he espoused some of the anti-Semitism endemic to the European bourgeoisie, though this was not incompatible with close friendships with several Jews, brave acts of harboring some of them during the war, and a role in distributing the French resistance publication Messages.

Judging the extent and the gravity of de Man’s collaboration is difficult. At the war’s end, he was summoned for questioning in Brussels by the auditeur-général in charge of denazification, who decided not to bring any charges against him (whereas the editors of Le Soirwere condemned to severe punishments). One could leave it at that: if not guiltless, not sufficiently guilty to merit sanction. Yet both those to whom de Man was an intellectual hero and those to whom he was akin to an academic Satan have wanted to know more.

When the wartime writings came to light in 1987, there was a kind of journalistic Walpurgisnacht, indicative of how much de Man’s version of literary theory, though not much understood, had enraged a number of cultural commentators. Some colleagues and students of de Man decided to put the incriminating work before the public in a large volume, Wartime Journalism,which was followed by another, Responses, with a gamut of commentaries from the exculpatory to the condemnatory.1

The most useful pieces in Responses come from the Belgians Ortwin de Graef, who as a young scholar discovered the wartime pieces, and Els de Bens. They help us to understand the nuances of collaboration in the occupied country, the different degrees of complicity with an enemy whom some saw as a liberator, and the evolution of a situation in which an apparent grant of at least limited freedom of speech and opinion gradually revealed itself to be an illusion. They do not conduce to excusing de Man—he clearly made wrong choices at a time when some others made right, and heroic, choices. They give us rather grounds for thought about life under occupation (which most Americans have not known) and the daily compromises of survival. They suggest that in our hindsight we need to be careful of unnuanced judgment. To try to understand is not in this case to excuse, but rather to hold ourselves, as judges, to an ethical standard.

Evelyn Barish professes that her lengthy biography, long in preparation, was undertaken out of a fascination with its subject, accompanied, though, by the admission that she doesn’t understand de Man’s thought. She was briefly a colleague of de Man’s at Cornell, where, she tells us, “his occasional lectures were impenetrable.” She claims that the “radical skepticism” of his later thought was “deeply rooted in what he had lived through, even suffered,” which is innocuous enough. But what interests her in his life and sufferings? “There was evidence of a ménage à trois, of a luxurious apartment of suspect provenance (was it seized from deported Jews?), of bigamy, blackmail, forgery, and suspicions about how he got into Harvard.” Lurid stuff. Yet when she ends this introductory chapter by noting that “the great men of Paul de Man’s generation have now slipped away, sinking beneath the horizon along with his favorite ocean liner, the Normandie, the three-martini lunch, and, perhaps, our trustfulness concerning assertions of ‘greatness,’” we may find our own trustfulness taxed. The French liner Normandie caught fire and capsized at its pier in the Hudson River in 1942, long before de Man had ever crossed the ocean (which doesn’t prevent Barish from including a photograph of de Man and family returning from France to the US in 1964 “aboard the Normandie”).

It’s of a piece with a footnote to the statement that she discovered that de Man planned “to create an entirely Nazi journal, one dedicated to promulgating Hitler’s ideology, from his views of race to his notions about nutrition—and even his cosmology.” The footnote reads: “I shared this information, and it has since been previously published in Belgian sources not now available to me.” That does not pass any sort of muster.

One could do a review of Barish’s footnotes that would cast many doubts on her scholarship: even the most important published sources on de Man’s past, Wartime Journalism and its companion Responses, are misdated; Marcel Mauss’s famous essay “The Gift” is attributed to Georges Bataille; the claim that de Man was to be secretary of the editorial board of a new periodical, Cahiers Européens, controlled by the German Foreign Office, is footnoted: “This writer understands that an essay (citation unavailable) was produced by a student in Belgium.” That just won’t do, especially since Barish asserts that the prospectus for Cahiers Européens, nominally written by the editor of Le Soir, Raymond de Becker, is in part in Paul de Man’s handwriting. Maybe—but can we trust her at this point?

One of her pieces of evidence in de Man’s pattern of “carelessness and deceit” is the allegation that his “loving second wife,” Patricia Kelley de Man,

was the writer who translated the famous edition of the classic novel Madame Bovary, for which de Man got sole credit; it was her translation, not her husband’s, that so many American students read as Flaubert’s.

The sentence isn’t entirely coherent, but the charge is overblown: the translation is by Eleanor Marx Aveling (Karl’s daughter), originally published in 1886, which Paul corrected for Norton (which billed it as “substantially new”), a task in which he was no doubt much aided by his wife. An overriding problem of Barish’s book is the mélange of interesting fact with egregious misstatement and portentous innuendo.

It’s a pity, since she has assembled a mass of interesting material: on the de Man family, which had reached bourgeois affluence and culture in three generations (his great-grandfather was an Antwerp butcher), on the lifestyle of prosperous Belgian bohemia on the verge of the war, on the passionate Anne Baraghian, his first wife (though married to another at the time they had their first child), who presumably later on “denounced” de Man to his superiors at Harvard, and, especially, on the multiple faces of survival under the Nazi occupation. One wishes one could trust Barish more, since a guide through the intricacies of the time and the place would be valuable. She has recovered notable documents, including the transcript of de Man’s interrogation by Roger Vinçotte, chief prosecutor for the Épuration, in 1946.

The problem is that she is stuck with her Mr. Ripley conceit, and must always herself play the prosecutor rather than letting her story develop according to its own logic. She is probably right, for instance, that de Man was exonerated by Vinçotte because he was a little fish mainly useful in pursuing the big ones. But she can’t leave it at that: she has to speculate on his “luck” in the “mild” interview, which took place on “virtually the last day before the summer vacation,” to assert that de Man’s most offensive article, “The Jews in Contemporary Literature” in Le Soir, “proposed deportation of Jews.” The article speculates that

one sees that a solution of the Jewish problem that would aim at the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not entail, for the literary life of the West, deplorable consequences.

A deeply repugnant statement, quite unlike the rest of the wartime journalism, but for Barish to claim that it proposes deportation of Jews seems to me a forced reading. She goes on to conclude that de Man was not a pronounced anti-Semite but rather “one of the lukewarm, whom Dante condemned to sit eternally at the gates of Hell, men without principles or convictions who compromised with evil.” It would seem a general principle of the biographical art that one should avoid assigning positions in Hell to one’s subjects.

Paul de Man appears to have left Belgium not only under the shadow of his famous uncle’s catastrophic career but also as the result of his mismanagement of a publishing house called Hermès, established after the liberation and dedicated to publishing luxury art books. According to Barish, the mismanagement was actually fraud, the looting of the firm’s capital, raised largely from family and friends, and after his departure for the US in 1948, the cause of a conviction, fine, and jail sentence that meant de Man was not able to return to Belgium (he eventually did so in 1963). Barish’s accusations get in the way of understanding de Man’s misdeeds. How much was financial irresponsibility—which seems to have been a pattern in his life—and how much true fraud? That some authors never got promised advances sounds like publishing-as-usual; that there were forged receipts sounds much worse.

When de Man sailed for New York in 1948, his wife and children went to Argentina, presumably in the expectation of eventually reuniting. This never happened, and another of the charges against de Man is that he “abandoned” his first family and then committed bigamy when he married Patricia Kelley, a senior at Bard College, where he taught for a couple of years. The “bigamy” rumor in fact circulated during de Man’s lifetime: it appears there had not been a legal divorce from Anne before he married Patricia, but to make that a subject of moral outrage on a par with wartime collaboration, as Barish seems to do, might not be the choice of other biographers. The more interesting story to me is that of de Man’s rapid success in the world of New York intellectuals. It reads like Balzac’s Lost Illusions,the story of a young writer’s hyperbolic rise, but without the inevitable crash that follows in the novel.

De Man took a job in the stockroom at the Doubleday bookstore. It was apparently through his friendship with Georges Bataille that he made contact with Dwight Macdonald: Macdonald owed Bataille $20 for using his review of John Hersey’s Hiroshima in the journal Politics, and de Man served as the intermediary for the payment. He was an emissary of European literature at a time when New York was interested: Macdonald put him on the Europe America Group he was forming. At one of Macdonald’s parties on East 10th Street, he met Mary McCarthy, who became a good friend, for a time, and possibly more—Barish toys with their possible affair for many pages. She recommended him for his first teaching post, at Bard, replacing the professor of French who was taking a sabbatical. His relations with McCarthy soured; she evidently was disappointed by him, although Barish’s account does not make clear just why.

At Bard he was a success—a gifted pedagogue from the start, with a kind of quiet charisma that derived from his intense attentiveness to the texts before him. But here came the first episode resembling more a Thomas Hardy than a Patricia Highsmith novel: first wife Anne, along with children, arrived unannounced at LaGuardia and took the train to Rhinebeck, with orders that Paul meet her there. He did, and eventually negotiated a financial settlement with her (which later he didn’t honor). Other debts accumulated; he couldn’t pay his rent to his professorial colleague, who became his enemy. Then INS agents came calling, though it’s not clear exactly what they wanted: the whole question of de Man’s immigration status is most confused. Barish claims he was not able to get his Belgian passport renewed, and that his frequent travels back and forth to Europe all took place “on his wife’s passport,” which is hard to fathom. De Man in any event was dismissed by Bard’s president, apparently in response to financial issues and the “scandal” of his (non)marriage to Patricia, who by this point had given birth to a son.

Patricia de Man
Paul de Man with his children Patsy and Michael aboard an ocean liner wrongly identified by Evelyn Barish as the Normandie, 1964

De Man with wife and child set off for Boston, determined to undertake graduate study at Harvard to earn the doctorate he lacked. He went to work at Berlitz, undertook translations (with Patricia’s assistance), and tutored one Henry Kissinger, a graduate student in the Harvard Government Department seeking to improve his French. He met Harry Levin, professor of comparative literature, and was invited to join an informal seminar (along with George Steiner and John Simon) that met at Levin’s house. By the fall of 1952, he was officially admitted to graduate study in comparative literature, and later was elected to the Society of Fellows, considered the preserve of Harvard’s best and brightest.

One might consider this a story of remarkable survival and success following the chaos of war, occupation, postwar migration, and moments of financial desperation: without any degrees to his name, de Man had impressed, among others, Bataille, Macdonald, McCarthy, and Levin, and entered the highest precincts of American academia. During the following decade, he contributed nine articles to the newly established New York Review: astute and incisive short essays on major European writers—Hölderlin, Gide, Camus, Sartre, Heidegger, as well as Borges—that display notable cultural range and critical poise.

But to Barish, it is all Mr. Ripley: a man of charm and wit who manages to talk himself into places he doesn’t belong. (She implies he doctored his transcript from the Université Libre de Bruxelles.) She finds what negatives she can (particularly in an interview with Richard Poirier) but cannot gainsay the fact that de Man impressed both his colleagues and his students. He began teaching Reuben Brower’s famous course in Harvard’s General Education program, “Humanities 6: Introduction to Literature,” which had a transformative effect on his own approach to literature, as he noted in one of his last published essays, “The Return to Philology.”

But now the past returned again, in the form of a “denunciation” from a source that Barish, like others before her, assumes to have been Anne. The letter of accusation has disappeared; it can be reconstructed only from de Man’s reply, which was printed in Responses. I must now insert myself into the story: when the “revelations” about de Man’s wartime past broke in 1987, many were asking why de Man had never confessed. Why hadn’t he come clean about the past? At this point, I received a letter from Harry Levin. He had been my teacher and dissertation director at Harvard, but we hadn’t been much in touch since then, so the letter came as a pleasant surprise. Levin wrote that he wanted me to know that Paul had made a “clean breast” to him and Professor Renato Poggioli concerning his past at the time he entered the Society of Fellows, and that this information had then been passed on to Henri Peyre, Sterling Professor of French at Yale, at the time of de Man’s appointment to the Yale faculty in 1971. I was myself on the Yale faculty, and de Man had become an admired colleague and friend.

Barish will have none of the clean breast: she sees de Man’s letter as a string of evasions, lies, half-truths. The letter (addressed to Poggioli) has four heads. They concern “the modalities of my admission” to Harvard and election to the Society of Fellows; his status with the INS; his “political past” under the German occupation; and legal charges as a result of the liquidation of Hermès. Most interesting is of course his explanation of his wartime activities. He begins it with the sentence: “My father, Hendrik de Man, former Belgian Minister and Chairman of the social-democrat party, is a highly controversial political figure.” He goes on to note that Hendrik was sentenced in absentia after the war, and died in exile; that he remains “an extremely debatable case”; and that his name continues to arouse “extremely strong feelings” among Belgians. He continues:

I know that his mistakes were made out of a lack of machiavellism and not out of lack of devotion to his ideals. He did what he thought best for his country and his beliefs, and the final evaluation of his acts is a matter of history.

(I actually think this is fair enough.) He admits to his own “literary articles” in Le Soir, without characterizing their content, and says that “like most of the other contributors, I stopped doing so when nazi thought-control did no longer allow freedom of statement.” He goes on to note that he could not possibly have obtained a Belgian passport after the war without the “certificat de civisme” that proved one had been exonerated of crimes of collaboration. He ends with a personal paragraph, including: “This sudden reflux of a past presented in such a light, when I had devoted the last seven years of my life to building an existence entirely separated from former painful experiences, leaves me weary and exhausted.”2

The “reflux” of the past is a telling phrase for what happened to de Man in 1955, and then again posthumously in 1987. America is mythically the land of new beginnings and self-reinvention, and the postwar period was very much a time for it. One might admire de Man’s resilience and the intelligence that took him to Harvard and beyond. Barish finds it all slippery; she wants full disclosure and breast-beating. She makes much of the strange untruth of de Man’s designating Hendrik as his “father,” though on at least one later occasion he corrected that assertion in print. Hendrik was in fact his godfather. But since Hendrik’s politics were a large part of his problem, why call him his father? I can’t answer that. It’s almost as if he wants, in this rare confessional moment, to take the burden of family guilt upon himself. It’s in any case the name de Man that designates guilt. He never repudiated that.

That, so far as I know, is the extent of de Man’s “confession.” It demonstrates that he did not remain wholly unconfessed, though that does not satisfy those who wish he had been more explicit about his anti-Semitic writing and had made an act of public contrition. It’s hard to know what the occasion for such an act would have been—he was not, for all his academic celebrity, a public man with a public pulpit for a public confession. And his essay on the episode of the stolen ribbon in Rousseau’s Confessions—to my mind, one of his most brilliant and challenging pieces—breathes a kind of distaste for the theatricality of confession. Rousseau’s making himself transparent creates a distasteful performance.

The question remains: What did the burden of the past mean for de Man’s intellectual development? The opponents of “deconstruction” were quick to pounce on the “revelations” as an explanation: de Man’s views about the disconnect between word and world came from his need to deny history and politics, to shut himself up in an echo chamber where language had no reference outside itself. That is as unsubtle about de Man’s writings as it is about the relation of the present to a haunting past. De Man’s work resists simplification, and also systematization—as he said himself, he was not a philosopher, but a philologist—and it evolved over time. One can say, in the most general terms, that it is united by a suspicion of ideology as a mystification that takes the seductions of rhetoric as something in which to believe. He wrote: “What we call ideology is precisely the confusion of linguistic with natural reality, of reference with phenomenalism.”3

Most of his work is dedicated to a kind of askesis, a clearing of the terrain of literary study of the ideological and indeed theological presuppositions he found there. He argued in “The Return to Philology,” written for the TLS, that one should study the structure of language prior to the meanings it produces. Literature should be taught as “a rhetoric and a poetics prior to being taught as a hermeneutics and a history.”4 At the heart of his lesson was a radical engagement with reading, in the most self-conscious manner. This he learned in part from Reuben Brower, as teaching assistant in Hum 6, a course in what Brower called “reading in slow motion.” (I was myself some years later a teaching assistant in the course.) Brower, an independent “new critic,” himself a student of I.A. Richards, believed that students should learn to analyze texts using only the information provided by the texts themselves—without the baggage of biography or literary history or premade assumptions about meaning and significance.

De Man found this a radically transformative experience, and it became the basis for his own more theoretically inflected version of a study of figural language, and his demonstrations of the confusions entailed by assuming that language performs an unproblematic designation of the world. As he said in an interview (with Stefano Rosso) near the end of his life, “the text knows in an absolute way what it’s doing”: it is aware of its inability to designate, of its radical figurality.5 This does not mean that the outside world ceases to exist, but rather that one must approach its messages with the same rigor. As he also says to Rosso, “I have always maintained that one could approach the problems of ideology and by extension the problems of politics only on the basis of critical-linguistic analysis.” You cannot, in his view, master the political world until you have mastered, with critical self-awareness, the linguistic.

De Man notes further that he can’t do anything without a text to work with. He was above all a pedagogical expositor of texts. His oral presence was, I think, more effective than his written. The loyalty of his former students is famous. Barish wonders what made them “follow what they don’t understand,” and evokes “false prophets.” That is nonsense of a piece with the rest of her explanations. Barish accuses him of “short-changing” students on two continents—a statement she doesn’t even bother to footnote. There were shadows and complexities enough in de Man’s life and thought, to be sure, but they gain only the murkiest illumination here.


The Paul de Man Case: An Exchange May 8, 2014

  1. 1

    See Paul de Man, Wartime Journalism 1939–1943, edited by Werner Hamacher, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Keenan (University of Nebraska Press, 1988); Responses: On Paul de Man’s Wartime Journalism, edited by Hamacher, Hertz, and Keenan (University of Nebraska Press, 1989). See also the helpful introduction by Lindsay Waters to Paul de Man, Critical Writings, 1953–1978 (University of Minnesota Press, 1989). These books were reviewed in these pages by Denis Donoghue, June 29, 1989. 

  2. 2

    The letter is reprinted in Responses, pp. 475–477. 

  3. 3

    See Paul de Man, “The Resistance to Theory,” in The Resistance to Theory, with a foreword by Wlad Godzich (University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 11. (This is a posthumous collection of essays.) 

  4. 4

    See de Man, “The Return to Philology,” in The Resistance to Theory, pp. 25–26. 

  5. 5

    In The Resistance to Theory, p. 118. 

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